Thursday, February 7, 2013

Max Robinson: A Media Pioneer

For Black History Month, I’ve always had a tradition of telling unfamiliar stories. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of seeing the same legends recycled in schools and among news programs. But ever since I was at my newspaper, I wanted to celebrate more than just the normal.

Today, I celebrate a media pioneer who has been forgotten by some in the 25 years since his death. Max Robinson may not be a name most people under 30 know but as a journalist, he was one of many who made it possible for me to have a career.

He spent 26 years in the business but it was a five-year stretch where he became a national name and blazed a wider trail. In 1978, he became part of ABC World News Tonight as he co-anchored the news Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings and on July 10, he made history being the first Black person to anchor a network news broadcast.

That’s why Robinson should be remembered. But it was the pinnacle of a career that fought against racism, the perception of Black America in the news and for future Black journalists to have opportunities. Below is a snippet of him at work.

He showed that tenacity during his first job at a TV station in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1959. He was hired to read the news but his face was hidden by a slide of the station logo. That wasn’t enough and one night, he removed the slide so his family could see him. He was promptly fired since the station felt the city wasn’t ready for a Black man doing the news.

He became the first Black reporter at WTOP and WRC in Washington D.C. He made a name forr his work as he covered the Civil Rights Movement and won awards for his coverage of events in the day. His most notable piece might have been his documentary on Black life in Washington D.C. (“The Other Washington”) that won him two local Emmys.

In 1969, he made even more history when he became WTOP's (and the nation’s) first Black newsanchor. He held that position for 9 years and his profile grew even more, which attracted ABC head honcho Roone Arledge.

Arledge created a radical tri-anchor format for World News Tonight: Frank Reynolds in Washington, Peter Jennings in London and Robinson in Chicago. For 5 years, they gave America the news and ABC brought a Black face in front of the camera.

Max Robinson, Roone Arledge, Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings.
In addition to reporting the major stories of the day, he never forgot to do his part to portray Black Americans positively or mentor others. In 1975, he was one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists, of which I’m a member and forever grateful for their legacy.

He also challenged ABC to do better in their coverage of Black people and made a famous (and still relevant, I think) speech in 1981 that media “was a crooked mirror through which white America saw itself.” He continued below...

“Only by talking about racism, by taking a professional risk, will I take myself out of the mean, racist trap all Black Americans find themselves in.”

That speech, along with reports of being hard to get along with and his alcoholism, made things tougher on him and by 1983, he was off World News and did weekend reports for ABC. I can safely assume that his coworkers had to adjust to seeing a Black man in that position and they didn’t know how to deal with a strong person who didn’t back down.

After leaving ABC, Robinson did a brief stint in Chicago at WMAQ, becoming their first Black anchor before retiring in 1985. Sadly, he later contracted AIDS and would die in 1988 at the young age of 49.

Like so many pioneers, he stared down racism and prejudice in an industry that is still lacking in diversity. It threatened to overcome him and his demons of insecurity but like Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood and others, he stayed determined. To date, Robinson remains one of the very few people of color to anchor a national news show on CBS, ABC, or NBC.

And yet, he’s mostly forgotten. I looked him up years ago at my newspaper and I found most of the same information now researching this. A decent-sized but mostly general Wikipedia page, a few pictures, a tribute blog post and not much else.

Along with Bernard Shaw on CNN, he made it possible for folks like Don Lemon, TJ Holmes, Stuart Scott, Greg and Bryant Gumbel, Stan Verrett, Robin Roberts and others to be lead anchors and pioneers on national shows. He walked the lonely road doing his job so others could be inspired to join him in telling the stories others have. Despite the pressure of being the first, carrying the burden of being "twice as good" and facing racism, he represented us well and his voice should not be forgotten by time.

He’s an inspiration because he was one of the people who made it possible for so many of us to be in front of the camera. He’s a pioneer who never forgot about us when he reported and as someone in the media who benefitted from his exposure, I owe him a debt of thanks.

Thank you Mr. Robinson.

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